By Mike Cronin
Last year I wrote about the war on Christmas. This year the election of Donald Trump has overshadowed the usual brouhaha over nativity scenes at City Hall. So this year I thought I’d go with something a little more practical. The guiding purpose of this blog is to make sense out of the vast array or “manufactured truth” that we are constantly bombarded with. Here are a few tips and tricks to deal with it every day:
- Consume news skeptically: the first thing you need to remember about the news media is that their first concern is to sell advertising. Their second concern is often to reinforce a narrative or advance an ideological or even partisan agenda. Running in third place is actually informing you about the new events of the day. There has been much ado recently about fake news. Given the first and second criteria just outlined, almost all the news is fake to one degree or another. When there is some crisis happening, such as 9/11, and the news “breaks in” to tell us about the event as it’s happening, they haven’t had much time to adapt it to their preferred narrative. In those cases we are usually getting real news, even if some of the details are inaccurate while the debris is still falling or the smoke is still rising. As soon as one of these stories acquires its own theme music, it’s no longer breaking news. At that point you must start taking it with a grain of salt. In reality, the best way to glean something of the truth may be to examine headlines from multiple news sources, to include some foreign outlets such as the Economist, BBC, and perhaps even Al Jazeera or Xinhua. Even so, while those sources may tell you what’s happening and why, they seldom articulate what it means and what will likely happen because of it. Personally, I like to scan the news headlines, but I also like to read intelligence. One of my favorite sources is StratFor; a private “intelligence” firm that uses the lens of geopolitics to explain the world.
- Geopolitics, as you might have guessed, is not just about geography or politics, but about how geography enables or constrains political and/or economic action between nations and other actors. For example: The United States is largely regarded to have the largest economy and the most powerful military, and we are generally thought of as being the world’s only superpower. But it is not only our military might or our form of government that has led us to this condition. The United States is this way in part because of where it’s at and what it has. The most striking example of this is our river and coastal waterway system. “The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.” (From StratFor’s “The Geopolitics of the United States.”) Give these advantages, it would have been a shock if the US had not become an economic powerhouse! By way of contrast, consider the difficulties faced by a landlocked country. Afghanistan, for example, is estimated to have over $1 trillion worth of natural resources in the form of valuable ores and minerals. Yet owing to the difficulty of getting to and from Afghanistan and navigating within its borders, and the fractured nature of its tribal society, Afghanistan has never realized its economic potential, and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. Where the United States has abundance of access, Afghanistan has a dearth. Geography has dealt a difficult hand to landlocked countries, but there is at least one way to overcome that difficulty: adopt a Western form of governance that recognizes individual rights and promotes liberty. Switzerland is the epitome of a country that can overcome geographic isolation by staying neutral in the conflicts of its neighbors and giving its people freedom.
- Like most, I’ve had geography classes, and classes on US. Government, but I never had a “geopolitics” class per se in my formal education. Our schools are set up to teach material as discreet subjects, but our brains are not set up that way. We learn and make memories by association. Another example might be economics. The word economics conjures up thoughts of central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, changing interest rates and conducting “quantitative easing.” Those elements of economics were among the set popularized by John Maynard Keynes, and “Keynesian Economics holds sway among the vast majority of economists today. But in a broader sense, economics is the study of human activity. This goes hand in glove with geopolitics, as does history. Come to think of it, so does psychology. What if there was a way of learning economics (and other subjects) in a way that more closely mimics the way the human brain learns? Under such a rubric, there would be far fewer barriers between what we think of as the traditional subjects. Such a field exists. It’s called “praxeology.” In short, praxeology is the study of volitional human action, and it is a basis for the Austrian school of economic thought. We can borrow the concept to help us understand the world without trying to become economists ourselves.
Using these three tools (skeptical news consumption, understanding how geography can enable or constrain political and economic action, and removing the artificial barriers between “subjects,” and examining human action holistically), we can better learn to Filter the Feed.